“I’ll tell you my strategy, the power that emerges from fierce authentic truth articulated among us!”
Marianne Williamson is one among many in the Democratic field of presidential candidates. She is a popular writer and motivational speaker, a liberation theologian and spiritual teacher. She was raised Jewish, but as an adult she embraced A Course In Miracles (ACIM).* She was the leader and senior minister of the Renaissance Unity Church (formerly known as the Church of Today). Under her leadership, it grew to be the second largest Unity church in the country. She sought to make the church independent of the Association of Unity Churches, but it didn’t work out and so she left that position; she would later return to the same church as a guest minister.
She is already a fairly well known name — not as much for politics, although she previously ran as a congressional candidate. Consistently left (and often quite far left) on every major issue, she has been speaking out about social, economic, and political issues for decades, including her 1997 book The Healing of America, but public health has been a particular focus. For example, she started two organizations to support HIV and AIDS patients during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s; and also that same decade she formed a nonprofit that continues to this day in bringing meals to the seriously ill. She has founded other kinds of organizations as well, such as one teaching peace-making skills. On the more radical side, she strongly advocates reparations for slavery.
She is a social justice warrior, but does so with a light touch without attacking others. She promotes moral patriotism in emphasizing that America, though imperfect, has stood for great things throughout its history. Americans have done the morally right thing many times before and we can do so in the future. It’s a message of making America great again, just without any hint of cynicism. It isn’t empty rhetoric to manipulate supporters and win votes. If nothing else, she is sincere. That isn’t what we’ve come to expect from presidential hopefuls. Then again, maybe it is exactly what we need, if only to change the public mood and shift public debate.
Along with her time in the Unity Church, the ACIM informs her vision for humanity and America. It has shaped me as well. My grandmother read the ACIM and, when I was in high school, I read my grandmother’s copy of it. It is particularly popular in the Unity Church**, the New Thought Christianity also introduced to my family by my grandmother. Williamson was the major force behind the ACIM’s rise into public awareness, along with Gerald Jampolsky as a guest on Robert Schuller’s Hour of Power tv program (Schuller being the all time most influential prosperity preacher; certainly, my mother’s favorite). The ACIM message reached a much larger audience by way of Oprah Winfrey promoting Williamson and her writings. Some people like to portray Williamson as Oprah’s spiritual guru, but that seems more like a way of dismissing the message, whatever one may think of New Age religion (I’m personally of mixed opinion, having been around it my entire life).
Williamson will be in the second Democratic debate hosted by NBC, along with Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. She is the only candidate, as far as I know, who is openly speaking about spirituality and religion. Interestingly, as a longtime Democrat, she will be the most religious candidate in either party. I guess New Age religion is moving up in the world. She represents the most potent antithesis of everything Donald Trump stands for. As he promotes hatred and division, she speaks of love and unity: “We have to shift from a sense that we are separate to a shift that we are one. That is the only way the 21st century will be survivable. Our technology has so outdistanced our wisdom that we are a threat to ourselves.”
Public religiosity has been dominated by the Republican Party since the Fundamentalists gained a foothold in the Reagan administration, although we have to blame Jimmy Carter for introducing Evangelicalism onto the national stage and making it respectable. For many decades now, the loudest voices and most powerful forces of religion have worshipped an authoritarian demiurge of fear, hatred, and judgment. Now here is a religious leader entering the political fray with a message that declares that the God inspires our worship is of love and nothing but love, a God who speaks truth instead of lies, a God known through personal transformation and radical vision, not from institutional authority and righteous dogma. That is quite different than the right-wing ‘god’ who creates his own pseudo-truths, as do his followers, and then forces them upon the world. Williamson is part of the reality-based community, but she elevates reality to a faith in Reality, that truth isn’t a mere convenience of opinion that we bend to our preferred biases and agendas. Truth remains, as always, and it will overcome what is false like shadows before the light of the sun — I might note, according to the earliest Pauline tradition, this is the original teaching of Jesus Christ.
Even if you’re not religious and are opposed to New Agey woo, even if you’re an atheist or simply not a Christian, still understand this represents an interesting turning point and a challenge to the status quo. The Republican Party has embraced Trump, a man raised in a different strain of positive thinking Christianity, that of Norman Vincent Peale who had more of a right-wing lean. But this conflict within religion is quite ancient. It goes back to the early Church. Williamson is defending a theology that once was at the heart of Christianity before being expelled by later heresiologists. Her message of love is the return of one of the earliest strains of radical thought, at a time when Christianity was challenging another abusive power of this world, the Roman Empire. The situation isn’t fundamentally different under the American Empire (“The Empire never ended!” PKD), even if not yet reaching the same height of brutality, not quite yet. The times change, along with the ruling powers of this world, but this ancient message of hope is continually resurrected.***
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* For those unfamiliar, ACIM is one of the most popular New Age texts that uses Christian language and, according to Kenneth Wapnick, Valentinian theology. Valentinus, one of the earliest Church Fathers and in the Pauline tradition, introduced the Trinity into Christianity. According to Clement of Alexandria, his followers said that he learned under Theodas or Theudas, a disciple of Paul the Apostle. Marcion, first collector of the Pauline Epistles (as argued by Robert M. Price) and originator of the earliest New Testament canon, was another famous student of Theudas. In following the radical Pauline vision, both Valentinus and Marcion preached about a God of love, forgiveness, and mercy.
This was part of a direct lineage of wisdom, maybe more similar to Eastern traditions of mysticism and meditation or else something along the lines of the Roman mystery schools. Supposedly taught to Paul’s inner circle, this was a personal vision of the risen Christ (Romans 16:25; 1 Corinthians 2:7; 2 Corinthians 12:2–4; Acts 9:9–10), and one might note that Paul never claimed historical literalism (and so this lends itself to a docetist interpretation) for the Christ he spoke of always was a spiritual figure that transformed the individual supplicant, akin to Enlightenment. Never once did Paul describe a physical Jesus, which is truly bizarre if such a Jesus existed for Paul converted to Christianity during the time when later Gospels claimed Jesus was still alive and yet Paul never bothered to seek out Jesus, as he apparently was fully content with the spiritual Christ. Considering no historical record of a Jesus Christ has ever been discovered, not even in the writings of the most famous Jewish historian of the era, one is forced to conclude that speculating about a historical Jesus is meaningless since it obviously held no meaning to the earliest faithful such as Paul.
It might be seen as similar to other traditions labeled as Gnostic, that is if one interprets this vision of Christ as secret knowledge of an elite or an elect. But one might argue it is more similar to the anti-elitist strain of some later Protestant or Anabaptist faiths in how Valentinianism upholds a personal relationship to God that depends on no institutional authority as mediator. His monism resonates with Eastern religion and philosophy. Evil, in this worldview, has no fundamental reality and, instead, is an illusion or error. In not understanding the monistic essence, some mistake this as dualism associated with Gnosticism. But if Valentinus and Marcion were Gnostics, then so was Paul and, with this in mind, we should acknowledge that Paul’s writings are the earliest known Christian texts. Many have argued that the Paul’s teachings were the prototype of both Christianity and Gnosticism, the two traditions maybe having originally been the same faith or else emerged from the same milieu.
Rather than the dualism of good and evil that has long plagued Christianity (as inherited from Judaicized Zoroastrianism and as incorporated from Augustine’s Manichaeanism), Valentinus’ monistic system of faith reconciled the Trinity within the one true divine source. Despite the denial of the Trinity, the closest modern equivalent to this monism would be Unitarianism, specifically in relation to Universalism as Valentinus also had a broad vision of salvation (besides the Unitarian-Universalists, the Unity Church also holds to these doctrines). Despite being called a Gnostic according to those who seized power within the Church, Valentinus was a leader in the early Church long before any heresiologists came along to slander anyone as not being a real Christian and centuries before the Nicene Council. His Christianity was original and, if anything, what came after was revisionism.
Gospel of Truth
(written by Valentinus or his followers)
“Therefore, if one has knowledge, his is from above. If he is called, he hears, he answers, and he turns to him who is calling him, and ascends to him. And he knows in what manner he is called. Having knowledge, he does the will of the one who called him, he wishes to be pleasing to him, he receives rest. Each one’s name comes to him. He who is to have knowledge in this manner knows where he comes from and where he is going. He knows as one who, having become drunk, has turned away from his drunkenness, (and) having returned to himself, has set right what are his own.
“He has brought many back from error. He has gone before them to their places, from which they had moved away, since it was on account of the depth that they received error, the depth of the one who encircles all spaces, while there is none that encircles him. It was a great wonder that they were in the Father, not knowing him, and (that) they were able to come forth by themselves, since they were unable to comprehend or to know the one in whom they were. For if his will had not thus emerged from him – for he revealed it in view of a knowledge in which all its emanations concur.”
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** Let me offer some historical context, but specifically about the United States. So-called New Age thinking began quite early. Of course, you find it rooted in the Axial Age. But you also see evidence of it in the various mystical and spiritual schools of thought that kept erupting throughout European history. Following the Protestant Reformation, the idealistic Anabaptists, Huguenots, Quakers, Shakers, etc brought a political edge to religiosity — all of which shaped England during the English Civil War and shaped the American colonies during the same period. Consider Roger Williams’ version of the Baptist faith, as radical as they came in that era and remains radical to this day.
The Enlightenment kicked this into high gear with such things as Mesmerism which would later influence not only psychology by way of hypnotism and hypnotheraphy but also positive thinking, new thought, and prosperity gospel. The American Founders were often quite radical in their views, such as many of them being Unitarians, Universalists, and Deists. Thomas Paine, like a number of others, challenged the historicity of Jesus Christ and other Biblical stories, not that he was making a docetist argument. The American Revolution might not have happened without this religious fervor and the theological challenge to the British Empire. In asserting natural law above human law, in declaring everyone was an equal before God, this moral righteousness struck directly at the heart of abusive power.
From the American Revolution to the decades following the American Civil War, there was an emerging sensibility about religion and spirituality. It was the the period of the second and third Great Awakenings, involving the spread of what was then radical Evangelicalism (giving voice to women and challenging slavery), along with Transcendentalism, Spiritualism, Theosophy, etc. This would come to shape 20th century progressivism and liberalism. The Unity Church formed in the late 19th century, having taken shape amidst the Evangelical unrest of the Populist Era. Besides offering a more positive message, they early on were advocates of vegetarianism; also, women were allowed greater participation and at least by the time I was a kid they were proponents of same sex marriage. The New Age is as American as apple pie.
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*** This isn’t limited to Christianity, of course. The same basic message was preached by all of the major Axial Age prophets. It has been the defining feature, the radical heart of all that has followed since, including the universal idealism that erupted during the Enlightenment.
This vision has been persistent in its challenge. It is unsurprising that Christians, as with the faithful of other religions, have so often failed to live up to it. But one wouldn’t mind all the failure so much if there were more believers who took the message seriously in the first place, serious enough to attempt to genuinely follow such high ideals. Instead, most failure of faith comes from a weakness or lack of faith. It is a rare Christian I’ve met in my life who has even bothered to try to live according to Jesus’ example and his simple teachings of love, as such extremes of self-sacrifice are inconvenient.
Marianne Williamson is making the humble suggestion that maybe, just maybe religion doesn’t have to be equated with heartless hypocrisy, doesn’t have to make a moral compromise with cynical realpolitik. Nor that spiritual transformation is inherently separate from political revolution, a truth that has been embodied by many visionary leaders before, from Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. This has been the challenge of Axial Age idealism for more than two millennia.
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